Mental Agility….Losers who Lose and Losers who Win

‘Mental toughness and heart are a lot stronger than some of the physical advantages you might have, I’ve always said that, and I’ve always believed that.’ – Michael Jordan

That player that reacts from a setback in a positive manner, that player that then gets to the top, that player that then remains at the top of their field. All examples of a player that that has mental agility, the players that manage to complete all these stages are hailed as some of the greatest of all times:

David Beckham:

1998: Sent off in a crucial World Cup quarter final against Argentina, blamed for the defeat

1998/1999 season: Booed, severely insulted and in need of private security at every football ground he goes to in England

2000: Named England Captain

2001: Scores last minute free-kick against Greece to send England into World Cup 

2002: Captains England in World Cup, scores vital winning penalty against Argentina in the group stage, carries the team to the quarter finals

2006: Captains England in another World Cup

(Also see Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali‘s stories for examples of mental agility in their respective sports)


So what is ‘Mental Agility’ and how do we develop it in our players. Mental Agility (previously mental toughness) is described as “an ability to cope with or handle pressure, stress, and adversity, an ability to overcome or rebound from failures” Jones, 2002.

In a study complied with professional coaches in England, they pinpointed mental agility (resilience in particular) as one of the critical factors for making the step from academy to the professional level (Jordet, 2016).

Academies and clubs can be an extremely stressful environments, in particular when there is a pressure to succeed or they receive a setback from an injury or poor performance. For this reason, players need to deal with these setbacks and pressures of academy/professional football (Mills et al, 2012).

It is not a case of whether they experience a setback, but rather ‘when’ they receive a setback. Every player at some point during their career will experience some sort of set back. The ability to cope with these setbacks effectively reflects the person’s level of mental agility and will be a good indicator of how far they can go in the game (Pain, 2016).

people men grass sport
Photo by Pixabay on

The ability to bounce back from disappointment is a life skill that everyone needs to develop (LCS, 2015). What the player tells themselves after a setback, how they act, what they do, this is the difference between a resilient player (CT, 2012) and a player that will quit.



Below is a table taken from Sport Psychologist Bill Beswick (2015) on the difference between a mentally agile striker and a mentally stiff striker:

Screenshot 2018-09-02 11.30.04.png

The greatest accomplishment is not in never falling, but in rising again after you fall – Vince Lombardi

Another central characteristic of mental agility is ‘commitment’ (Pain, 2016). Commitment means finishing what you started, continuing even when you don’t feel like it, continuing even when people doubt you and doing what you said you’ll do (Beswick, 2015). The way Brendan Rodgers sees it is that commitment is more important than motivation:

“I want commitment, not motivation, because motivation is fleeting, it goes by feelings. You may get up in the morning and feel you don’t want to do it, so what? You don’t do it? If you’re a life-saving surgeon and you’ve got five operations a day, and you work on motivation, you may be motivated for the first four, but the fifth one needs their life saved just as much, so you have to be committed to the cause.” Brendan Rodgers Cited in Carson, 2014

For me, one aspect of mental agility that players tend to fall back on the most, especially in older age groups and adults is ’emotional control.’ This is seen at every level (although it seems to be more prevalent the lower the standard of football).

I had one player who had fantastic physical, tactical and technical attributes, but if a bad refereeing decision went against him, or an opponent put in a tough tackle on him that he didn’t like it would lead him to experiencing ‘head loss.’ He would start to get aggressive, he would start swearing, he would run around like an angry pitbull, he starts misplacing passes as his objectives shifts and his defending technique would go out of the window whilst he runs a full on sprint without slowing down towards a dribbling forward who either dribbles past him with ease or is brought down for a foul.

We knew that if we could work on his mental toughness we would have a great player on our hands. It all started on the training pitch, firstly, we banned him from swearing in practice and games, this allowed him to think before he acted and to return to emotional control. We then intentionally gave bad refereeing decisions, especially aimed towards him, which allowed him to practice his emotional control practically. This worked a treat once game day came along and his performances improved monumentally.

A fear for some coaches and players is that the individual will lose aggression, on the contrary quite the opposite happens, they gain controlled aggression, they keep the fire in the belly but gain ice in the head.

Screenshot 2018-09-02 11.21.44.png
Observable Control Behaviours in Soccer – Pain, 2016


  1. Ban Swearing: Especially for the players that you can see has a detrimental impact towards their performance
  2. Practice Emotional Control in Training: Use bad calls, consequences for losing control and pressure simulation in games (Pain, 2016)
  3. “No player or team achieve mental toughness by staying in their comfort zone” (Beswick, 2015). Constantly look to challenge players and lead by example by getting out of your own comfort zone.


  1. Trigger Words: Practice breathing strategies and using command words when adversity hits (e.g ‘I’m back’, ‘Next chance’). This will keep your nerves or anger in check and commit to the next opportunity (Pain, 2016). Optimistic self talk is a great way to train resilience (Duckworth, 2016)
  2. Choose your Response Mode: Remember that you choose how to respond to tough times, the more you practice this, the more emotional control you will have. Think “Am I a victim or am I a fighter?” (Bates, 2017; Beswick, 2015)
  3. “Don’t let your victories go to your head or your failures go to your heart”. It is natural to be happy after a win or disappointed after a loss, but make sure you wake up the next day with confident modesty.

Champions never complain, they are too busy getting better – John Wooden

Reference List/Recommended Reading

  • Bates, T (2017) The Future Coach – Creating Tomorrow’s Soccer Players Today: 9 Key Principles for Coaches from Sport Psychology. Dark River.
  • Beswick, B (2015) One Goal: The Mindset of Winning Soccer Teams. Human Kinetics.
  • (CT) Carnegie Training (2012) How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age. Simon and Schuster.
  • Carson, M (2014) The Manager: Inside the Minds of Football’s Leaders. Edition. Bloomsbury USA.
  • Duckworth, A (2016) Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Ebury Digital  
  • Jones, G (2002) What is this thing Called Mental Toughness? An Investigation of Elite Sport Performers. Journal of applied Sport Psychology, 14, 205-218.
  • Jordet, G (2016) Psychology and Elite Soccer Performance, Chapter 16 Soccer Science: Using Science to Develop Players and Teams Edited by Strudwick, T Human Kinetics, USA.
  • (LSC) Leadership Case Studies (2015) The Leadership Lessons of Gregg Popovich: A Case Study on the San Antonio Spurs’ 5-time NBA Championship Winning Head Coach . Kindle Edition.
  • Mills, A; Butt, J; Maynard, I and Harwood, C (2012) Identifying factors perceived to influence the development of elite youth football academy players. Journal of Sports Sciences 30 (15): 1593– 1604.
  • Pain, M (2016) Mental Interventions, Chapter 17 Soccer Science: Using Science to Develop Players and Teams Edited by Strudwick, T Human Kinetics, USA.

Author: coachphilp

Masters Degree in Fútbol with Real Madrid Universidad Europea (Voted #1 Football Masters Degree in the World) 16 years coaching over 3 nations. “Employ your time in improving yourself by other men's writings, so that you shall gain easily what others have laboured hard for.” - Socrates

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